Negligent bureaucracy floods a city

THE Bligh government faces potentially huge damages claims from flooded residents and businesses after a finding by the Queensland floods inquiry that the operator of Wivenhoe Dam "breached" the official manual over the releases of water into the river system.

Premier Anna Bligh, who received the royal commission-style inquiry's interim report yesterday, acknowledged the breach by the flood engineers who were managing the dam's water releases "may well be ultimately tested in the courts".

The inquiry also pinpointed a lack of flood preparedness by the Queensland government, systemic dysfunction and confusion across bureaucracies involved in water management, a failure of the Water Minister, Stephen Robertson, to ensure timely risk-management before the flood, and other problems.

It has recommended a "precautionary approach is best" and a reduction in the Wivenhoe Dam to 75 per cent of its supply level for drinking water if future weather forecasts are as serious as the forecasts that were made late last year.

The inquiry's finding that the manual was breached strips the owner and operator of the dam, the Queensland government and SEQWater, of legal indemnification and paves the way for claims for compensation.

More than 17,000 homes and businesses were partially inundated at an estimated cost of $5 billion in the January floods. Many people are yet to return to their homes.

The inquiry qualified its finding that "there was a failure to comply with the Wivenhoe manual" by observing that the flood engineers "were acting in the honest belief that the Wivenhoe manual did not" compel them to adopt a strategy based on forecast rainfall.

A successful legal action would need to prove that the breach had a direct and adverse impact on the levels of inundation and damage, senior lawyers told The Australian yesterday.

The breach occurred because the flood engineers did not rely on "forecast rainfall" when they were determining the timing and volume of dam releases at critical stages of the flood event.

During periods of very heavy rain and with more forecast by the Bureau of Meteorology, the engineers made relatively low releases based on a "no further rainfall" model instead of the manual's requirement to be using "the best forecast rainfall".

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